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Should I Use Absolute Phrases? Absolutely

May 10, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 10, 2011

If you study absolute phrases, you’ll find that people will tell you that this modifier is seldom used, even though its construction can bring both lyricism and additional meaning to a sentence.

I don’t find that absolute phrases are rare as much as I find them misused. Or perhaps I should say misconstructed.

Let’s start by defining an absolute phrase and giving some particulars for it.

It’s a modifier, a noun phrase, that modifies a sentence. Where an adjective modifies a noun and an adverb modifies a verb or another adverb, an absolute phrase modifies the full sentence.

It’s an addition to a sentence that tells us more about the sentence.

It’s not essential to the sentence structure, so the sentence is grammatically correct without it. (Although it may add vital meaning to the sentence.) The absolute phrase is almost always set off by a comma or a pair of commas.

It typically contains a noun followed by a modifier, though sometimes it will simply be a modifier.

It often contains a participle (past or present), but it could instead be a prepositional phrase, a noun phrase, or an adjective phrase.

It does not contain a finite verb (one that indicates tense, person, or number).

It does not connect to the rest of the sentence with a conjunction.

It’s often a more focused view or an expansion of the sentence it modifies. (It tells more by narrowing in on a specific detail.)

Some absolute modifiers imply the unstated words being or having.

Absolute phrases can come at the beginning, the middle, and at the end of sentences.

There are two types of absolute phrases. One type explains a cause for or a condition of the rest of the sentence. These types of absolute phrases could be rewritten as subordinate clauses introduced by since, because, or when.

The second type adds detail or narrows the focus of the sentence. These types of absolute phrases could be rewritten and changed into main clauses or introduced with the proposition with.

A few examples (words in brackets can be written or merely implied; sentences in parentheses have been rewritten, with the absolute phrases removed)—

[Having been or Being] [T]aken for a thief, Constance decided to act the part.

The moon only a quarter full and the stars hidden, the night offered a landscape of shadow. (This could read, With the moon only a quarter full and the stars hidden, the night offered a landscape of shadow.)

The suspect [being] long gone, a party atmosphere returned to the Johnson family barbecue. (Since the suspect was long gone, a party atmosphere returned to the Johnson family barbecue.)

Timmy John Jenson, meek in attitude and bold in determination, intended to ask for a raise

Terence continued his stroll down Main Street, [his] cares abandoned, [his] fears lost behind a double dose of Prozac.

Noelle, [her] heart pounding, lifted a trembling hand to the door knocker. (With her heart pounding, Noelle lifted a trembling hand to the door knocker OR Noelle’s heart pounded as she lifted a trembling hand to the door knocker.)

Thunder pounding again and again just outside the bedroom, Astrozoom the Wonderdog quivered under the bed. (Since thunder pounded again and again outside the bedroom, Astrozoom the Wonderdog quivered under the bed.)

They seem easy enough to write, these sentence modifiers. So why, or how, are they misconstructed?

I find this construction used incorrectly when the absolute phrase doesn’t have a strong enough connection to the rest of the sentence. It’s either not an expansion of the sentence or not a focusing in on one part of the sentence. While the format is often correct, the words themselves do not work as a sentence modifier.

So, what doesn’t work as an absolute phrase, even though the setup looks right? These sentences do not work—

Noelle, the sun shining brightly, lifted a trembling hand to the door knocker. X

Terence continued his stroll down Main Street, airplanes taking off at the airport. X

Astrozoom the Wonderdog quivered under the bed, children playing in the yard. X

What would be the absolute phrases in these sentences don’t mean anything to the sentences. The sun shining brightly has nothing to do with Noelle’s trembling hand reaching for a door knocker. It’s not a cause of Noelle’s shaking hand, nor is it a focusing in on a detail that gives us more information about Noelle lifting that trembling hand to the door knocker.

This is the construction I find most often misused, this reference to a weather condition. If lightning or thunder or wind is a cause of a character’s actions, use the absolute phrase. If not, try a different wording.

For Terence, airplanes at the airport have nothing to do with him walking down the street. We could have said any of the following and been correct, depending on the true circumstances

Terence continued his stroll down Main Street, cars zipping past without pause.

Terence, happy and oblivious, continued his stroll down Main Street.

Terence continued his stroll down Main Street, his boss busily working back at the office. (With his boss busily working back at the office, Terence continued his stroll down Main Street.)

These make sense for Terence and the conditions of the street. The third example makes sense only if we know that Terence left his office with a lot of work undone or if he had an argument with his boss before he left. If the reader knows nothing of his office conditions or that he skipped out, leaving everything for the boss, this particular sentence wouldn’t work.

This same understanding of the plot or story events is important for making sense of Astrozoom’s last sentence as well. If Astrozoom is terrified of the children playing in the yard and the reader is already aware of that, his sentence would be acceptable. We would know it was because of the children playing in the yard that A-Zoom was quivering under the bed. Yet, without that knowledge, the sentence doesn’t make sense as it stands.

Yet, even knowing that children playing in the yard caused Astrozoom’s quivering, I’d reword that sentence, making sure the connection was obvious.

With the neighborhood children hollering and carrying on in the back yard, Astrozoom the Wonderdog quivered under the bed.

Sometimes an absolute phrase is the perfect way to shortcut a long explanation. Sometimes, however, the reader needs the explanation.

______________________________________

Absolute phrases are one more way to introduce variety into your writing. But if they’re used incorrectly, they may have readers scratching their heads, trying to make sense of something that has no meaning. Be sure that your phrases make sense at the sentence level and make sense in the context of the scene.

Add absolute phrases.

Make them specific.

Broaden your sentence constructions.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation

5 Responses to “Should I Use Absolute Phrases? Absolutely”

  1. I’ve just found your blog via Nick Daws: will be coming back as I love the detail of grammar. I also work in the courts with witnesses who have communication problems, and write reports explaining to counsel which types of questions are inappropriate – I’m sure your posts will help. Love the examples!
    Many thanks.

  2. Frances, it’s great to have you here; I thank Nick for the recommendation.

    I find examples work well for explanations. At least they work well for me.

  3. george wu says:

    thosecomments make sense. However, absolute phrase are like poetry and poetry cannot be examined for sentence correctness.

  4. George, while it’s an interesting thought—and I’d guess there’s more behind your statement than what you shared here—I don’t agree that poetry can’t be examined for correctness. Poetry still has to be understandable, and different types of poetry have rules. A line of words strung together into nonsense doesn’t create poetry—nouns still have the property of nouns and verbs are still verbs and the relationships between nouns and verbs and other parts of speech still have to make sense in order for the reader to pull meaning from them.

    I’m curious about your comment that absolute phrases are like poetry—in what ways? That’s something I hadn’t considered before, although absolute phrases are definitely a different type of phrase, more lyrical or perhaps more literary than the more common workhorse phrases.

    Thanks for giving us something to consider.

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